Most people understand the need for public engagement and support the idea, but often worry if they’re getting it right. Engaging communities in ongoing discussions and during the planning stages of a project or an initiative is vital to build relationships and create compromise. Gathering opinions and feedback allows the public to discover shared priorities. The public engagement process seems fundamentally essential, but there are a couple of prevalent issues that can make the process fail. Outlined below are two typical challenges to the engagement and collaborative decision-making process, along with a list of solutions to get you on the right track.
TIME. Effective public engagement creates a better decision-making process. However, a tight timeline can make agencies feel as if there isn’t sufficient time to engage the public adequately, so engagement does not occur. It’s important to understand that not every project will benefit from a wide-ranging public engagement process; however, many projects would benefit with the appropriate time. Ask yourself two questions: 1. Do I want to engage the public on this project in the future? 2. Is the outcome dependent on public support? If it is a reoccurring project or annual decision, then take steps now to show the public that the next time around, there will be a more collaborative process. If the outcome of the project is dependent on public support, and you’re out of time, consider some form of engagement, such as informing the community of the project efforts and time constraints, and then asking for input on the predetermined outcome. Communicate that decisions have already been made, but public input is still valuable and desired. Also remember that not all projects necessitate full empowerment of the public to make a final decision.
SUPPORT. As efforts commence, there appears to be support for the public engagement process from stakeholders in your agency; they have acknowledged that public participation adds a sense of personal responsibility and helps to make hard decisions easier to accept. However, at the approval stage, the recommendation created through the collaboration process is not supported by your elected officials, and the effort fails. Such a setback can be avoided: The most critical decision to be made before any public engagement begins is to have the buy-in from key decision makers who must support the process through the final decision. Whatever the subject matter, people will seriously engage in the process only if they believe they can have a real impact. To achieve such an impact, the work must have the buy-in of key decision makers and be directly connected to “live” governance processes (that is, where a decision is actually pending).1 A lack of support at the tail end of a successful engagement process will result not only in a failure of the project but in a lack of trust for future efforts. Public engagement and collaboration should help build trust between citizens and the government, not steer an agenda. It should identify problems and create solutions.
Start small; engaging your community doesn’t always mean creating a long collaborative process.
- Ask for ideas often; send out small surveys, one or two simple questions like, What’s your favorite park or hiking trail?
- Host workshops or trainings to teach residents about an internal process and to ask for feedback. Maybe your community would benefit from understanding the process of developing fees or awarding contracts?
- Create contests specific to your department’s functions. Picture, design, or art contests are all great ways to reach populations that may not participate in normal government activities.
- Provide more information for projects or activities that are typically handled by staff alone. Ask for feedback and funding ideas for the next park design or the next community beautification project.
The goal should be to develop a relationship with members of the community who have historically not been involved, and thus allow their perspectives to help create results.